Séan Moncrieff: We don’t hate the Brits the way we used to
Brexit and the discussion around it has illuminated Ireland’s progression as a country
A pro-Brexit activist stands with his dog as he demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in London. File photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Yes, it was last week, but rather like the way you shouldn’t need Valentine’s Day to express love, you also shouldn’t need St Patrick’s Day to point out that Ireland is great. Anyway, I forgot.
It won’t do us any favours, yet Brexit has illuminated how we’ve progressed as a country. We’re far from perfect, of course. But we have reason to be proud.
Brexiteers and the swell of far-right parties around Europe hold nationalism as a central organising principle; that the nation-state is the “natural” way of grouping peoples together. For some, this is a self-evident truth that goes back as far as the old testament. The EU “empire” is the enemy here. Run by globalists and elites of various sorts, its singular aim is to suffocate national identity by leaching away power from national governments and encouraging mass migration, thus diluting the national character.
In Britain, sections of the media and political classes have been telling this story for decades. Europe has been to blame for every silly law, every bureaucratic incongruity. It’s always been more emotional than logical: Britishness itself is subject to a corrosive attack, one so insidious that Britons are becoming a subject people without realising it. One day they’ll wake up and not be British at all.
But if this narrative presents Britain in the midst of an evaporation of national self-confidence, the story of Ireland has been the opposite.
We were entombed in a narrow definition of nationalism, a self-identity that was mostly about what we were not – British – and emerged from that into a realisation of what we are. History made us well aware of how tragic and poisonous nationalism can be when it’s mostly concerned with hating the Other. The constructive ambiguity of the Belfast Agreement was a massive step away from that narrow thinking. It brought peace to the North – or at least, the absence of war – but on this part of the island it seemed to kick-start a process of even more profound transformation.
Ireland emerged into the wider world, and not in the way we had before. The world came here. At the height of the economic boom, close to 20 per cent of the Irish population was born elsewhere. We blossomed into a modern, secular Republic: and in doing so broadened the definition of what being Irish is: which is as it should be. Because culture and politics are not fixed. They evolve as they interact with the world.
While all this transforming took place, we joined the euro. We agreed (after a bit of resistance) to further European integration. Of course, one can grumble about all that. The euro may have been a mistake. European citizens might be happier for the EU to remain as a trading bloc rather than some quasi super-state. Brussels is cold and autocratic. We got screwed after the economic crash. But the point is that none of this stymied our development as a people. It didn’t dilute our sense of Irishness or our sense that we control our own affairs. There are many, many things that have yet to be improved in our country. And for that we look to our government, not Brussels.
Yet we’ve seen the opposite effect on the other side of the Irish Sea. We’ve seen some British politicians baffled and astounded that Ireland would have the temerity to stand up for itself during the Brexit debacle: an astonishment that seems to derive from an idea that the world hasn’t changed. That it’s 1970. Or 1870.
It’s annoying, of course, but it hasn’t prompted a rash of Brit-hating as it might once have. Another sign of our maturity, of how far we’ve come, of how well we’re doing. We don’t forget, but we’re not imprisoned by our past. It’s saddening to see others who still are.